Writing and the devising process

Recently I’ve been thinking about the creative process of writing in conjunction with that of directing. As someone who calls themselves both a director and a writer I’ve often wondered whether the two are at odds with each other; whether I should just settle down and chose the one career path.

What I’ve come to realise is that writing and directing are actually both a part of the same whole. That directing for the stage and writing for it are both parts of the craft of theatre making is not an unknown fact. That the director is writing and working with a language as much as any writer perhaps isn’t so acknowledged, neither is the fact that a writer can hugely benefit from going through similar creative processes as a director.

Currently I’m working on a semi-devised piece of theatre. I am both writer and director. The process is this: the company assembles and I explain my vague, very broad, ideas for the show. There is much gesticulating and me getting excited about some blurry notion. We then do a series of workshop rehearsals, exploring the themes and ideas in the hope of generating content. This content goes on to become revised and developed, and then still in rough form shown as a showcase. Audience feedback then goes towards the final construction of the piece wherein I sit and write out a (pretty-much-but-still-with-scope-for-development) final script.

Obviously the practice of writers workshopping ideas is not a new thing, I was yet to try it but in my head it sounded great. Everybody has an image of a writer as a solitary figure, locking themselves away in a room until ‘the work’ is finished. I’m uncertain where I stand on that amount of authorial ‘godliness’ in the theatre – an art form which, to me, seems to have its uniqueness (at least in part) in the collaborative nature of the creation of its language.

So I think I like this more open writing process, although that’s not to say I’m utterly against the more solitary one either. Working on this piece there has certainly been a combination of the two, and will definitely be much more of the solitary kind when we reach the later stages of the process.

What I’ve found particularly hard is getting the balance between my voice and other people’s. Between the actors turning to me and saying “you tell us what it should be like, it’s your play” and me turning to them saying “no no it’s our collective play, devise!”

What does that word devise even mean anyway? We seem to have this perception that it’s free play not guided by anything, but is it not just creating something new? Possibly this is better when loosely guided by an authorial presence who has some idea of where the process is leading, and whose ideas can be altered onto a different course by the work that comes out of playing with them.

As a writer it is terrifying to submit a first draft of anything to anyone, and yet that is what I’ve had to be doing these past few weeks. And it’s been okay. The ideas are rough, but working on them with a cast and playing with the ideas within them has helped to avoid that tortuous conflict of possibilities within your own head when an idea is taking shape.

Okay, perhaps it hasn’t avoided them completely but it’s certainly made them more productive.

Writing through a workshopping/devising process is like having the solitary writing process acted out in front of you – it’s seeing your ideas step out of your head and come to life. It imbues the creation of the world of the play with more possibilities and makes this process perhaps easier to do. Words on the page combine with a theatrical language to create something you may never have imagined.

I don’t know if it makes writing any easier, and I definitely think the solitary writing stage is to be respected at certain points in the process. But one thing’s for sure, writing through devising is certainly much less lonely.


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